Veterans Hope President-Elect Trump Will Continue To Focus On Their Issues
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In his presidential victory speech this week, Donald Trump picked up on a constant theme of his campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
DONALD TRUMP: We will also finally take care of our great veterans...
TRUMP: ...Who've been so loyal, and I've gotten to know so many over this 18-month journey. The time I've spent with them during this campaign has been among my greatest honors.
MONTAGNE: Trump championed veterans from the beginning, and he also offended many of them. He criticized John McCain for being a prisoner of war. He spent an entire week attacking the Gold Star parents of an American killed in Iraq. But many veterans supported him, and we asked Paul Rieckhoff what happens to them now. He founded the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
PAUL RIECKHOFF: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, we just heard a little bit from Donald Trump's acceptance speech. And many vets supported Trump, as he said. What do you think was the appeal?
RIECKHOFF: Well, veterans have become the ultimate populist issue. On the political campaign, Donald Trump was very consistent in talking about veterans and involving veterans. And I think it was a huge advantage, especially among moderates, especially among independents. Veterans are extremely popular. So I think a focus on veterans was good for his campaign, and I think it's going to be good for the future.
MONTAGNE: Well, one thing Trump, as candidate, said was that veterans had been not treated well. And he promised to appoint a new secretary of Veterans Affairs, investigate fraud at the VA, as he put it, and even create a 24-hour White House hotline answered by a real person. Is that something that will make a difference, those sorts of things?
RIECKHOFF: They sound good but execution, like with most things that politicians say, are going to be the hard part. And I think for veterans especially we have been used to big promises and disappointing results, especially after the VA scandal. Fixing the VA might be one of the biggest challenges for a President Trump. Every president says they're going to do it, yet we still got a VA with backlogs and massive problems.
MONTAGNE: Well, there also was a point at which, last month, he seemed to imply that military veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder are not strong because they, and I'm quoting here, "can't handle the horror stories" that they've seen in combat. Does - is he getting something wrong about PTSD?
RIECKHOFF: Well, in that case, he definitely got something wrong about PTSD, and the backlash was pretty significant. You know, there were a lot of flashpoints that Donald Trump hit throughout the campaign that ticked off a lot of veterans. The John McCain comment is another one that folks are not going to forget about. So he's going to have a long way to go with millions of veterans, and he's going to have a long way to go with the military.
MONTAGNE: Well, of course, one issue that a President Trump will be facing when he deals with the VA is the suicide rate among veterans, which has surged 35 percent since 2001. According to the VA, 20 veterans commit suicide every day. What to do about that?
RIECKHOFF: Well, veteran suicide is a national health emergency. And the fact that folks now know the estimate of 20 veterans a day is huge progress thanks to activists who feel like we've been screaming from the mountaintops. But like most of the promises, you know, Donald Trump has made, actually getting down and fixing this problem is going to be really, really hard. It's going to require incredible cooperation across government, across the private sector, in the medical community, the veterans community, and we don't have any specifics. We don't know who his VA secretary is going to be.
MONTAGNE: One final question. Vets currently make up about 20 percent of Congress as compared to 70 percent back in the 1970s. Does that make a difference that the lawmakers of this country have not seen service in uniform?
RIECKHOFF: Yes, it makes a profound difference, not just for the veterans community but for our national dialogue, for our politics, for our foreign policy. I think one issue that veterans are all universally concerned about is the lack of focus on the wars we're engaged in right now. You heard about veterans this week, but you haven't heard about Iraq. You haven't heard about Afghanistan. We have thousands of troops that are in harm's way right now, fighting and dying, and they feel forgotten. But I think this is maybe the most important moment in generations for the veterans community. We've got to step up and lead, and America's got to lean on us.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
RIECKHOFF: My pleasure.
RIECKHOFF: Paul Rieckhoff is founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.